Amway Journalism

Corey Pein   July 28, 2014

Like uninsured New Agers afflicted by terminal illness, journalists facing the collapse of their industry are turning in desperation to faith healers, quacks, and hucksters of all sorts.

The new media charlatans’ latest cure-all is a toxic concoction of marketing-seminar bluff and hypnotic technobabble. They call it “entrepreneurial journalism.” They’re even selling it on college campuses now. According to the label, this new blend is an invigorating panacea for a distressed profession. All claims remain unverified.

At a basic level, entrepreneurial journalism means going freelance and devoting countless hours to Twitter in order to promote your Personal Brand™. At its most ambitious, it means leveraging a foundation grant or a venture capital seed round into perpetual paid speaking invitations and, with luck, entree into the exclusive grifterhood of future-of-media experts. 

Pictured: a very good business plan. / Photo by SEOPlanter.

Pictured: a very good business plan. / Photo by SEOPlanter.

As with all good cons, this one begins with a dose of common sense. When established institutions fail, as old-fashioned newspapers and broadcasters have, it’s smart to seek out new ideas. At their most engaging, leading journopreneurs can summon the do-it-yourself spirit of punk rock, spreading dreams of a bold digital future across the bleak post-industrial milieu.

They tell aging, ulcerous newspaper reporters, “Don’t sit around waiting for the pink slip! Strike out on your own, like Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg. It’s your turn to shine!”

They tell indebted, future-fearing students, “Don’t wait for some crusty Boomer editor to give you permission to try out your crazy idea; Just build it, baby! Ezra Klein did it, and so can you!”

Having launched a few unprofitable websites of my own, I certainly understand the appeal of the journopreneurial message. Hard times beget constant hustle. Since no one currently employed in media can be sure what their next job will be, everybody’s working another angle, a side project, a PR gig.

But the most influential journopreneurs take this ethos to irrational extremes and, worse, actually exude disdain for traditional reporters and their craft. Their views, not coincidentally, echo the familiar gripes of many an unscrupulous news publisher.

Journalists, writes James Breiner of the News Entrepreneurs blog, “tend to view ourselves as high priests of an exclusive profession and bearers of a special ethical standard that few others can live up to.”

He goes on:

That [puritanical attitude] is at least part of the reason we have trouble in the new world of entrepreneurial journalism, where journalists start and run their own news operations. If we want to go out on our own, we have to recognize for the first time that journalism is a business […]

Profit is not a dirty word….

Of course it is. A “special ethical standard” is not something to be poo-poohed. It is actually the only thing that distinguishes journalism from advertising. Businesses thrive by becoming popular. Journalists piss people off every day in order to sleep well at night — they are (or should be) engaged in an unpopularity contest. Businesses win by exploiting conflicts of interest. Journalists win by exposing them.  To pretend otherwise is just so much exculpation and self-delusion.

A little self-delusion may be necessary for the brave new world of bootstrapped media. According to Harvard Business School, the failure rate for tech startups is as high as 95 percent. Funny how they don’t mention that in the brochures.

The grand poobah of the journopreneurship society is “hyperglocal thinkfluencer” Jeff Jarvis, who in the mid-aughts parlayed his popular, Iraq war-boosting blog into a professorship at the City University of New York graduate school of journalism.

Jarvis’s entrepreneurial journalism course there was launched in 2009 and later expanded to a full MA and mid-career certificate program, with prestigious foundation backing via the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, which Jarvis directs. The course was pioneering indeed.  According to CUNY, more than twenty-six universities, most in the United States, now offer similar programs.

Some of that growth can be explained by the seasonal changes in academic fashions (and the tantalizing whiff of philanthropic catnip). There is however another, corrosive element to the trend. Entrepreneurial journalism is more than a practicum, it is an ideology. This ideology scorns old shibboleths like “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” It can be unnervingly flippant on matters of ethics.

“We’ve corrupted journalism with capitalism,” Jarvis tweeted  from an entrepreneurial journalism summit in early July at CUNY. At the same summit, he bragged to attendees that his students “come in communists and leave capitalists.”

Surely Jarvis flatters himself. How many card-carrying pinkos have committed to a four-semester course about building a business plan, led by a bona-fide corporate guru? It seems more likely that Jarvis—a Davos groupie who wrote a popular book that equates Google with Jesus—has an extreme, almost McCarthyite sensitivity toward perceived socialist infiltration. It’s also possible that Jarvis simply lost touch with reality after watching one too many network dramas during his years as a TV Guide columnist. 

Jarvis’s Gordon Gekko schtick goes down a little easier once one accepts that his “entrepreneurial journalism” course is not about journalism at all—it’s about sales. Jarvis himself can’t seem to tell the difference. This much is clear reading Jarvis’s descriptions of the program as well as a published course curriculum.

The anecdotes collected in a 2011 Atlantic Wire article titled “What It’s Like to Learn Journalism from Jeff Jarvis,” written by one of his former students, are even more revealing.[*] According to one student quoted in the piece, Jarvis maintains that “journalism could be defined as anything that allows people to communicate with each other.”

Ergo: Twitter “is unadulterated, raw, unctuous journalism,” as Jarvis reportedly tells his students.  By that definition so is email. Or the telephone. (Not that a brand-conscious journopreneur need pick up one of those fusty old things.) The Atlantic piece goes on:

“There’s a syllabus, it’s loose but there is one,” says [another graduate of Jarvis’s program]. “You practice your ‘elevator pitch’ every day….”

While other students were braving the elements in the city, reporting on say, the lack of heating for residents in NYCHA housing, we were asked to look at Twitter, Facebook, HuffPost, Gawker, Foursquare and how they were making money…. The idolization was saved for the Dentons, Huffingtons, and Zuckerbergs who monetized their ideas, disrupted the market, and made themselves profitable.

Hell, why not Steve Jobs? It’s downright criminal he hasn’t gotten a posthumous Pulitzer.

The entrepreneurial journalism curriculum does “address” ethical issues (because “instruction” might suggest that ethical questions have preferable answers—how passé!). The ethics portion of the course includes a classroom exercise that involves “select[ing] a target to be disrupted based on vulnerability and opportunity”—in other words, finding a business to destroy.

The course concludes with an “apprenticeship” in which students “gain an appreciation of startup culture,” the curriculum states. “The startups need not be journalistic.” Sure, at this point, why bother? In this class, students are graded based largely on their business plans and related presentations. The future of journalism is PowerPoint.

Perhaps the most persistent damage wrought by professional turncoats like Jarvis is psychological.

Photo by SEOPlanter

Photo by SEOPlanter

In their long and seemingly hopeless search for answers, journalists have internalized the abusive rhetoric of the “disruption” brigade. Jarvis tells beleaguered journalists that they themselves, the lowly content-serfs—not short-sighted newspaper proprietors, not the Wall Street backers of corporate media conglomerates, not the sociopathic unchecked tech monopolies, not hostile politicians and prosecutors—are to blame for their sudden loss of livelihood. Don’t blame remorseless corporate Vikings like Craig Newmark for killing the news business. Blame old-school reporters like Dana Priest for failing to cultivate their Facebook fanbases.

What’s worse, the solution Jarvis offers will only accelerate the destruction of journalism. That solution is basically to put one’s trust in the likes of Google, because big tech companies know how to make money. That’s simply terrible advice for anyone starting a small business (terrible advice perhaps informed by Jarvis’s own close relationships to the tech titans). Ask an indie web publisher how her Google AdSense account is doing. You will find many who have concluded, as have many large European publishers, that big American tech companies like Google are waging a scorched-earth campaign for global domination.

The old media was a vicious and ugly beast, but at least it recognized the value of supporting full-time employees with benefits. In techworld, everyone’s a permalancer. Insecurity breeds obsequiousness, not courage, and journalism cannot bear too much more obsequiousness.

The digital-first propaganda obfuscates the qualitative inferiority of the new media order. Newspapers were always ruthless capitalist enterprises that happened, sometimes by tradition but often by mistake, to produce some valuable journalism. But the rising tech monopolies are ruthless capitalist enterprises that are plainly not interested in journalism as that term has been understood by generations of Americans. Their agenda is automation, standardization and de-professionalization; let the robots do it all, and whatever the robots can’t handle, leave to the Redditors.

That is plain stupid, as strategies go—but a few people will certainly profit from the ensuing chaos.

I’m not the first to criticize Jarvis for his tiresome “cyber hustlerpersona or his shameless grave-dancing amid mass layoffs. It’s also worth noting, though, that Jarvis’s own record in online entrepreneurial journalism is less than stellar.

Prior to his attaining his university imprimatur, Jarvis’s most substantive experience in digital journalism was as president and creative director of the internet arm of S.I. Newhouse’s publishing empire, Advance Communications. During the years when Jarvis was in charge, the websites of Advance’s many newspaper and magazine titles were notorious for being thin on content, difficult to navigate and overrun by commenter-trolls. The websites were, in the words of one commentator, “universally despised by all [Advance] publishers, editors and ad execs.” (Having worked across town from the Advance paper in Portland, Oregon in the mid-aughts, I can vouch for the fact that reporters and readers also despised the Jarvis-era websites.) 

In 2008, Jarvis partnered with a former Advance colleague to start Exploding Video Productions, which launched two websites. One was PrezVid, a blog culled videos about that year’s presidential campaign from YouTube. The site is still online, but judging by the column of WordPress error messages at the top of the page, appears to be experiencing some technical issues. The other venture was IdolCritic, which served the democratic conversation by giving our nation’s citizens a place to discuss the most recent episode of American Idol. That site is no longer online, but Jarvis can still claim to have gotten in early on the TV-recap phenomenon, for whatever that’s worth.

Although Jarvis flogged the sites on his widely read blog, BuzzMachine, and in his 2009 Google book, they both shared the fate of many startups–a quick flash, then poof—vanishing without even a pivot.

More recently, Jarvis took a prominent advisory role with a hedge fund-owned newspaper conglomerate, Digital First Media, a swaggering reinvention of two large, struggling chains formed in a post-bankruptcy merger. Digital First CEO John Paton may have consumed more of the tech-cult Kool-Aid than any preceding old-media executive, and Jarvis was enthused. “This is all I’ve ever wanted for the newspaper industry: Brave innovation and dogged determination to update and upgrade, not hold onto the past,” Jarvis wrote upon the birth of the new company in 2011.

That “dogged determination” lasted fewer than three years. Beginning this April, the company commenced a series of cuts apparently in preparation for another asset sale, buttressing my pet theory that “innovation” is the new code word for “looming layoff massacre designed to accelerate the upward transfer of wealth.” The cuts included the abrupt closure of Digital First’s key online initiative, a centralized national newsroom called Project Thunderdome. The prolific Jarvis for some reason didn’t see fit to blog about this news. Last month the Colorado Westword quoted an employee at the Digital First-owned Denver Post describing the current situation as a “F-ing horror show.”

Given all this, perhaps it’s no surprise that Jarvis’s entrepreneurial journalism program has yet to revolutionize the industry.

The CUNY program’s listed success stories include one alum who raised $16,194 for her scavenger hunt app through a Kickstarter campaign. That’s pretty good for a crowdfunding campaign, but shy of the $19,300 cost of four semesters of in-state tuition required to complete a CUNY entrepreneurial journalism master’s degree. Anyway, isn’t the point of the startup economy to do away with artificial barriers to the free-market meritocracy, such as university credentials?

Photo by Dan Hankins

Photo by Dan Hankins

Another alum launched a website called Narratively, which launched with a Kickstarter campaign of its own and quickly picked up lots of good press. Atypically among its cohort, the site’s raison d’être is nothing more complicated than to publish long-form narrative reporting (although, typically, the site doesn’t seem to pay much for it yet). What’s curious, considering the bottom-line focus of Jarvis’s curriculum, is that the star pupil’s business plan remains something of a work in progress.

Narratively accepts some advertising, but the big idea is something called Narratively Creative Group, an ad and PR agency with clients including Chevrolet and General Electric. The staff of this agency? Narratively journalists. “The same 800+ editorial contributors who come to Narratively from top media outlets like The New York Times, NPR, CNN and GQ are available to apply their innovative storytelling techniques to your brand’s content needs,” the website boasts.

Is this what entrepreneurial journalism means? Moonlighting for GE? Hey, it was good enough for Kurt Vonnegut. Granted, Vonnegut was an aspiring novelist, not a reporter, when he worked as a GE copywriter. No one relied on him for timely, accurate, independent coverage of, say, a toxic waste spill, or a corporate earnings report.

But scrubbing the concept of integrity from the journalistic ideal is only part of the program. Jarvis has long spoken of his plans to turn his CUNY program into a startup incubator serving idea-hungry venture capitalists.

“If I were a VC,” Jarvis wrote in his Google book, “I’d reach out to colleges and offer to help talented entrepreneurs, dangling seed money for those with great ideas.”

It’s easy to see how a university-based startup incubator would benefit Jarvis, who would gain another platform to arrange meetings with and favors for big-league VCs from New York to Silicon Valley. It’s also easy to see why CUNY administrators might smile on such a program: Imagine what the prospect of multibillion-dollar initial public offerings could do for recruitment. How you like that, Stanford?

It’s harder to see how such a program could be in the best interest of students. As many bright-eyed Silicon Valley migrants have learned the hard way, VCs often make their money by screwing over young, energetic and eager (read: clueless) startup founders and employees. Consider everything the NCAA does to keep student athletes from earning a salary. Now imagine what a seasoned venture capitalist might do to deprive a naïve student of the equity in a company built in a campus incubator.

What better way to learn how capitalism really works?

For those invested in the ideology of entrepreneurial journalism, the time has come to face facts. Perhaps the individualistic mythology of entrepreneurship, with its emphasis on big exits and one-time windfalls, is in irreconcilable conflict with the public-spirited mission of journalism. And perhaps, as Michael Wolff and others have argued, online journalism simply cannot break even. Seriously confronting those two possibilities could set the whole blinkered “future of news” conversation on a more promising track, but it may spell the end for the multi-level marketing network of journalism-as-sales franchise.

Some are already moving on to the next thing. In April, Jarvis announced he’s developing a new program in “social journalism.” That’s social as in social media, of course, not as in social issues (or, god forbid, socialism). As he wrote in his announcement on Medium:

So, yes, it’s social but it’s not just about social media. Yes, it’s about engagement but not engagement with us but instead about a community’s engagement with its own work. It’s about results, outcomes, impact.

It’s about, you know, buzzword, buzzword, buzzword. For next-gen edu-capitalist journopreneurs, there could be no higher calling.

[*]This post previously stated that the article by one of Jarvis’s former students was published in The Atlantic, but it was actually on The Atlantic Wire online. This has been corrected; we regret the error.

Corey Pein is a writer and reporter in Brighton, England. He offers free samples at coreypein.net.

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